There is something quite magical about spending the Christmas season in Europe. From the seasonal festivities featuring some of the best Christmas markets anywhere in the world to the stereotypical cold weather that just highlights the need to sample hot chocolate or mulled wine, Europe is undoubtedly the place to be at Christmas. Switzerland and France are two countries that we love spending time around the Christmas period and during our recent trip, we decided to take an awesome day trip from Basel to Colmar to experience the best of both places.
The beauty of finding a base in Switzerland is that you can easily take a plethora of awesome day trips to nearby Swiss cities or hop across the borders into either Germany or France. Our visit to Basel saw us spend 48 hours in this city and utilize this time to take a short day trip to the French town of Colmar, located in the Alsace region.
For those of you unfamiliar with the geography of Switzerland, the city of Basel is located on the Rhine River in the north-west corner of the nation. From here, a trip to either Germany or France is just a short train ride (or road trip) and it’s definitely a great place to enjoy the best of the seasonal festivities in all three nations.
Let’s take a look at how you can enjoy the best of both places during a 24 hour period.
How to Travel From Basel to Colmar
If you have been following our travel blog for a while, you should realize by now that we love exploring all of Europe by train. In our opinion, it’s the best way to experience this continent, regardless of other opinions that the low-cost airlines make it cheap, easy and an efficient way to get around. But alternatively, if you are the type of traveler that prefers to rent a car and be self-sufficient, the short road trip to Colmar is well worth it also.
Train travel enables you to discover “hidden gems”. Train travel is convenient. Most importantly, train travel is reliable! Whether you are using the handy Eurail app or simply visiting the local train station, you can be sure that the timetables reflecting the times of future routes will be pretty accurate.
We have found that a delay of 5-8 minutes is cause for concern among locals…trust us, when you fly as frequently as we do, this delay is nothing compared to the several hours you may experience waiting inside an airport terminal.
So…in a nutshell, for those of you planning a trip from Basel to Colmar, the best way to enjoy this is by hopping on the train and taking the short 40-45 minute journey into the Alsace region of France. Not only will you have an awesome final destination, the journey itself offers gorgeous panoramic views of the Swiss/French countryside.
Road tripping is always a fun experience and for those of you spending some time exploring Switzerland by car, the journey from Basel to Colmar is simple, painless and will likely take you around 45-50 minutes dependent on traffic.
Simply hop on the A35 autoroute which passes both the airport and the east side of the city and just follow the signs for the center of Colmar.
But if you are really insistent on driving, why not add Germany to the route? For only an extra 15-20 minutes, you can head towards Lörrach, located in the in the valley of the Wiese before crossing the Rhine River and heading towards Colmar.
Best Things to Do in Colmar
Before arriving in the idyllic town of Colmar, it’s worth doing some research to figure out the best things to do there. If you are visiting during the festive season as we did, the highlight is undoubtedly the Christmas festivities and those iconic Christmas markets that are perhaps some of the best in Europe. Here are a few of the highlights that you should consider when heading to the heart of the Alsace region of France.
Just like most idyllic French towns, one of the best things to do in Colmar is to head straight to the Old Town and walk around and explore. The Old Town is a short walk from the train station and is filled with spectacular architecture. Flower filled balconies, perfectly maintained structures and the infamous colored timber that epitomizes everything there is to love about French inspired artisanal towns.
The beauty of Colmar is that the narrow streets make this the perfect place to just let yourself get lost and be spontaneous. Our number one tip for anyone exploring the lesser known French towns, is to allow spontaneity to take over. From quirky boutique French souvenir shops to a local patisserie (or two) serving freshly made baguettes and decadent sweet treats. If you can resist heading inside one of these, you have way more willpower than we do!
There is something quite magical and charming about Colmar’s Old Town neighborhood. Aside from the quaint storefronts, you never quite know what monument or memorial you may stumble across as you walk around a corner.
This quintessential part of Colmar dates back to the 13th century when it was a flourishing market town full of local butchers, tanners and fishmongers but today, it’s a blend of locals and visitors alike mingling among the decadent architecture.
Although the district of Little Venice is located in the heart of the Old Town, I think this area is unique and diverse enough to justify it’s own section. This is simply a part of Colmar you cannot afford to miss and the moment you arrive in the immediate vicinity of this neighborhood, you will quickly understand why.
The idyllic, colorful half-timbered structures that line the cobblestone streets are only part of the reason why Little Venice is such a popular spot among visitors.
Located on the banks of the Lauch River, visitors to Little Venice can treat themselves to a self-guided experience of this district. Why not start your adventure around Little Venice at Place de l’Ancienne Douane, an iconic fountain and monument dedicated to a great general of Charles V.
As you start following the path that lines the canal, the rest is all about spontaneity. Your eyes will quickly drift towards the architectural brilliance on display, along with the colorful floral displays on the balconies that locals always take care of.
The intricate details of the structures around Quai de la Poissonnerie (Fishing Quay) makes this a popular spot for visitors to take pictures but as your journey through Little Venice continues, you should be prepared to have plenty of memory cards available because this neighborhood is a microcosm of Colmar with so many amazing sights that you will want to photograph.
Colmar, just like many other French towns in the Alsace region, is home to a number of historic museums but none are quite as popular as Unterlinden Museum. Located in a former 13th-century Dominican religious sisters’ convent and a 1906 former public baths building, this museum houses a large collection of local, domestic and international artworks.
For the art aficionados out there, you will be familiar with the infamous Isenheim Altarpiece by Matthias Grunewald but this is just one of many artistic masterpieces to be found inside this museum. Although Unterlinden Museum is the most popular in the Alsace region, you may be surprised to hear that this is actually the second most frequently visited museum in France outside of those in Paris.
Paintings may be the highlight attraction inside the museum but you can also find quite the collection of sculptures, artifacts, decorative arts and also archaeological artifacts. It’s undoubtedly a historian’s dream but even those visiting Colmar that are not particularly interested in museums (like ourselves), will likely find this an intriguing place to visit.
Sample Local Restaurants
Colmar’s amazing architecture may be the primary reason for visiting but this region of France is also home to a plethora of amazing restaurants, offering both local and global cuisine. With Colmar being located along the French/German border, it’s no surprise to see that there is a distinctive blend of both when it comes to the cuisine offerings. Traditional French flair combined with typical German gastronomy create the perfect environment for restaurants to succeed in Colmar. Plus, if you visit at Christmas, you can always experience local, home-made delicacies!
If you are looking for the ultimate, Colmar based cuisine, perhaps a traditional “berawecka” is the perfect choice. This sweet treat is a spiced, soft bun consisting of fruit confit, dried fruits and toasted nuts. This is particularly popular among locals and visitors alike during the festive season. Our top tip on the best place to find berawecka is to visit Thierry Mulhaupt’s Patisserie located on Place de l’Ecole.
We sampled a delicious Italian restaurant (L’Amandine) while in Colmar, proving that it’s not just French and German cuisine that thrive here.
Heather opted for a traditional pizza and I couldn’t resist the Spaghetti Bolognese. Located in Place de la Cathedrale in front of St. Martin’s gothic church, L’Amandine is definitely a place we recommend visiting if you are looking for delicious Italian fare.
As you continue your adventure exploring Colmar’s Old Town, you cannot help but notice a myriad of bakeries, locally known as patisseries. As mentioned, Thierry Mulhaupt’s is just one example but if you need an artisanal French pastry, it won’t take long to find a chocolatier or patisserie to satisfy your tastebuds.
It’s the magic of Christmas. Without a doubt, Colmar is transformed into a magical wonderland during the festive season. Whether you have visited Colmar previously throughout the year, a trip to this part of France during the Christmas season is an experience you won’t want to miss. Colmar’s Christmas market scene is incredible and definitely near the very top of our favorite places in Europe to enjoy the festivities.
Why is Colmar such a popular spot for Christmas markets? Perhaps because of the quirky architecture surrounding the markets that makes the atmosphere so magical or maybe it’s because there are SIX different markets scattered across the town.
Each of Colmar’s six Christmas Markets is a separate mini-village with its own collection of passionate craftsmen (colmar La magie de Noel)
Regardless of where you walk when exploring Colmar, it won’t take long before you arrive at a cluster of market stalls selling locally crafted ornaments, delicious seasonal French inspired treats and of course the pièce de résistance at any European Christmas market, hot mulled wine.
If you are fortunate enough to visit Colmar at Christmas, you will be treated to a collection of amazing seasonal festivities epitomizing everything there is to love about the Alsace region of France. However, if you visit Colmar at any other time of the year, you will experience a beautiful, historic French town that is full of gorgeous architecture, delicious restaurants and of course, local patisserie’s that will entice you through their doors.
A day trip from Basel to Colmar is definitely an experience you should consider if you exploring Switzerland. It gives you the opportunity to head across the border into France and enjoy something a little different but is convenient enough to easily enjoy in less than a day. Colmar may be a place you want to spend a few days but regardless of your itinerary, it’s a location you will not want to miss out on.